MEDORA, N.D. — Activate the bat signal: The National Park Service has confirmed that the fungus responsible for the deadly White Nose Syndrome has been discovered in North Dakota for the first time.
The fungus was detected on a little brown bat captured on the night of May 6, 2019, within the boundary of Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, during proactive WNS testing conducted by the National Park Service Northern Great Plains Network in collaboration with the University of Wyoming.
WNS, named for the disease’s tell-tale white, powdery, fungus found on the noses and wings of infected bats, is not harmful to humans, but has killed millions of bats in North America. Mortality rates of up to 100 percent have been observed in some bat colonies since the disease was first seen in New York in 2006. The little brown bat, tricolored bat and Northern long-eared bat have been hit particularly hard by WNS.
The testing that identified the bat in North Dakota as having been exposed to the fungus did so by detecting the fungus’s DNA.
That fungal DNA could have been alive, but it could also have been dead, said Catherine Hibbard, a wildlife refuge specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This detection was late in the season from a bat that was caught after it emerged from its hibernation area, so the tough thing here is that we don’t know exactly where that bat got the fungus,” Hibbard said.
WNS has been identified in 33 states. North Dakota joins Mississippi, Wyoming, and Texas as states that have detected the fungus in bats, but not yet confirmed WNS.
"The hope would be that North Dakota would stay in that same category," Hibbard said. "But trying to track bats in North Dakota might be a little bit more of a challenge because they’re not in areas where other bats are congregated like mines and caves during the winter where it’s a little bit easier to go and take a look and see what the declines might be."
The National Parks Service estimates that bats contribute at least $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination. A single bat can eat up to 600-1,000 flying insects in an hour, according to Planet Natural Research Center.
But it’s a common misconception that bats contribute heavily to mosquito control in particular.
North Dakota is expected to see an increase in mosquito activity in the coming weeks, but not because of a declining bat population, said Ben Prather, Cass County Vector Control director.
“Mosquitoes can be eaten by bats, but it’s pretty widely regarded and understood that they’re not a main contribution to their diet specifically,” Prather said.
“It certainly is sad for me as a biologist to see that there is a decline of what is ultimately a beneficial part of our ecosystem that might have downstream implications,” Prather said. “And while the few mosquitoes that they would eat is somewhat minuscule in respect to any kind of control situation that we would see, any time that we lose another part of that it's something that gives you pause.”
To help prevent the spread of the fungus and WNS, the National Park Service recommends avoiding caves and other closed areas, avoiding handling bats, alerting officials of dead or sick bats you see and decontaminating caving and hiking gear and boots.